French President Francois Hollande headed for talks with his Russian counterpart on Friday, amid fears Russia is carrying out “indiscriminate” air strikes on Syrian militants.
The White House said that Russia is carrying out random air strikes against the Syrian opposition. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said it was targeting the same terror groups as the US-led coalition. France stressed it was crucial that Russia was true to its word.
The French military, like the US, is targeting Islamic State (IS) fighters with air strikes.
Russia meanwhile claims targeting IS and other militant groups but the Syrian opposition and others have suggested rebel factions opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – the Kremlin’s ally – are bearing the brunt of the attacks.
Hollande said it was important that “the strikes, regardless of who is carrying them out, target Daesh and not other groups,” using an Arabic acronym for IS.
Talks in Paris on Friday involving Russian President Vladimir Putin and Mr Hollande were expected to be overshadowed by Syria, although the meeting was called to discuss peace efforts in Ukraine.
Russia carried out its second day of air strikes on Thursday, and claimed to hit IS ammunition dumps and command centres. Lavrov, speaking at the UN in New York, said Russia would also fight other terrorist groups including the al-Nusra Front – an al-Qaeda affiliate. He said this position was the same as that of the US-led coalition which has been carrying out air strikes in Iraq and Syria for the past year.
“We are not supporting anyone against their own people. We fight terrorism,” Lavrov said adding that the targets were selected “in co-ordination with the Syrian army”. The Pentagon and Russia had their first conversation on Thursday to ensure there were no accidental clashes between their aircraft in Syria. But Washington expressed concerns that Russia did not appear to be targeting IS-held areas.
“Carrying out indiscriminate military operations against the Syrian opposition is dangerous for Russia,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. “It is only going to prolong the sectarian conflict inside Syria, if not make that conflict indefinite, and it also risks Russia being drawn even more deeply into that conflict.”
Russian air strikes on Thursday were said to have hit Homs, Hama and Idlib provinces. The commander of a US-trained rebel group said one of its training camps in Idlib province had been hit by two Russian sorties.
Hassan Haj Ali, of the Liwa Suqour al-Jabal group, told news agencies that the Russian jets were identified by former Syrian air force pilots who are now members of his group.
Syrian opposition groups say the strikes have killed civilians but Russian officials affirm the warplanes have avoided civilian areas.
More than 250,000 Syrians have been killed and a million injured in four-and-a-half years of armed conflict, which began with anti-government protests before escalating into a full-scale civil war.
More than 11 million others have been forced from their homes, four million of them abroad, as forces loyal to President Assad and those opposed to his rule battle each other – as well as jihadist militants from IS and other groups. Growing numbers of refugees are going to Europe. (BBC)
Russia’s force by the numbers
In response to reports circling about the Kremlin’s airstrikes in Syria, the Russian Ministry of Defense has provided precise figures on its status on the ground.
According to Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov, over 50 military aircraft and Special Forces are taking part in the fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State terrorist group.
More than 50 warplanes and helicopters are part of the Russian air force striking Islamic State targets in Syria,” Konashenkov said. He also stressed that marines, paratroopers, and Special Forces will be mobilized to protect Moscow’s military assets.
Russia began airstrikes against IS targets on Wednesday with the permission of the Syrian government. The move received heavy criticism from the West, whose own bombing campaigns have failed to prevent the spread of the terrorist group.
With Moscow and Washington at odds over how best to combat the threat, the Kremlin has ruled out the possibility of joining the US-led coalition.
“Theoretically, it would look nice from a political point of view, but I think that we have difficulty understanding the principles on which the coalition is acting,” Russian Foreign Ministry official Ilya Rogachyov said.
Despite their separate campaigns, the Russian and US militaries have agreed to maintain dialogue to prevent a “conflict of interests.”